Basically what it says on the tin.
Working mothers don’t pay retail rates for childcare. Like with formula feeding where people will cheerfully buy you formula but won’t help out with extra food if you breastfeed, people are more willing to help out with free or cut-rate childcare if you have any job outside the home, including SAHMs offering below-market childcare to working mothers. Yep, that’s a thing, to be expanded on in an upcoming post.
Also, working mothers are pushier about getting those discounts. There was a fairly shocking story a few years ago about a working woman just shoving her kid at a neighbor she’d never met until that day so she could go to work. There was a more recent story in Florida (go Florida, earn that fark tag!) about a woman running a less than legal daycare with exotic poisonous snakes on the premises and a higher than legal kid/caregiver ratio. IIRC that daycare had a waiting list.
About a third of working women with children under 18 use gramma/auntie specifically among relatives for childcare. This contributes to formula use in the United States. If you throw in other relatives or friends helping with childcare, you get up to nearly 50%. That’s working mothers’ access to discounted childcare: nearly half get it cheap or free from friends and relatives. As for the half not using gramma or cousin Susy, daycare owners and nannies can tell you all the horror stories about delays on payment from double income households and single mother households. But even when they don’t commit crime to get cheaper childcare, the tax system gives them and their employers thousands of dollars specifically to use daycare centers.
Basically the only working mothers who fork out retail prices are coastal women not living near relatives or friends who only put their kids in the right sort of diverse daycare center for childcare. And sure, they pay for the privilege, but they a tiny sliver of all working mothers.
Women should stay home with kids as the societal norm. It’s better for everyone. But under the current social setup, women can kindasorta afford to work outside the home when their kids are little precisely because a lot of under the table subsidy is given to them to support that. Little is gained from the kabuki theater of “Jane and her husband crunched the numbers and daycare is expensive and would leave her with only 5k per year, so that’s why she stays home with her kids.” It’s kabuki because if Jane said she was going back to work because Joe’s hours were cut 40%, she would find a raft of free or nearly-free childcare mysteriously washing up at her doorstep that is completely absent for most conservative Christian SAHMs. So Jane would earn a lot more than 5k per year in the first place. And of course, kids age out of infant and toddler childcare anyway.
But the real hole in this common economic argument for mothers staying home with small children isn’t that society currently props up working outside the home with implicit and explicit support, it’s that when husbands make that argument, this is what they are saying to their wives, the mothers of their children.
“You get nothing for staying home except being with your children 24/7. You get no break, you get no adult socialization, you get no relief or time alone. I as your husband don’t really have the resources to properly support your administration of the domestic sphere. I refuse to earn enough money for you to get domestic help as needed and I refuse to let you earn that money even though we just did the math and you totally would earn enough to pay for that support. I don’t value a comfortable home and a rested wife that much, because these things won’t happen if you stay home for several years or a decade plus having babies and never getting to use the bathroom alone, be treated as an adult by other adults including me or have a real family dinner you eat peacefully at a table. And you should take this deal, and become an exhausted, overworked wreck, possibly even overweight and invariably with health issues because I’m waving the temporary issue of childcare costs for a few years in your face. ”
Because the subsidy to working mothers is mostly hidden and secret, people can pretend it doesn’t really exist. But it is, right now, a crummy deal to stay home with little kids if you’re most women married to most men in America. The money isn’t there to paper over the difficulties. The family support is mostly absent among American-born folks who think nothing of moving cross-country for work. And keeping up the pretense that “childcare/daycare costs” are such a breaking point just maintains the status quo for wealthier families who can afford to provide household help for their SAHMs and do. It also limits family formation because a lot of women can see the acceptable fringe mothers at church who took the deal and had six or eight kids this way and they quietly contracept themselves into only having 3, 2, or even just one.
The current, real situation is that women get to be treated as adults as a default and norm if they work outside the home, no matter how many kids they have. It’s just that the general anti-natal arrangement of society (car seats, for example, are no longer built-in to cars due to legal issues rather than safety problems) means not having that many as a working mother. And to back this up, everyone (including SAHMs) falls all over themselves to make it easier for mothers of toddlers to hold jobs outside the home at even minimum wage income levels.
Anyway this is getting too long and wandering into the topic of how SAHMs contribute to the problem by providing cut-rate childcare, so I’ll just do a follow up post on that aspect of the matter. Stay home because it’s worth modelling for your kids and grandkids, so that we can get back to a society where it’s normal and women aren’t isolated and alone who choose it. It’s not saving that much childcare money, they aren’t toddlers forever and it’s still important to stay home after they age out of school-age or teenagerhood, and done with real support, some money might well be spent anyway on occasional or regular domestic help depending on the relatives-nearby situation. Sometimes economic arguments aren’t the ones we should be jumping for.